Black Lives Matter. Black Businesses Matter.

Gail Somers, owner of Yahso Jamaican Grill in Keene.

Black and Brown-owned businesses are few in New Hampshire because of the state’s low diversity rates. According to the 2010 census, 94% of NH residents are white. There are even fewer Black and Brown-owned businesses in more rural areas, such as Keene and Peterborough. Compared to others, minority business owners face different challenges compared to their white counterparts.

The most recent and notable example of the different challenges facing minority-owned businesses was access to PPP loans. On July 3, 2020, several minority business owners sent a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu urging him to make state resources more accessible for minority-owned businesses.

“The deployment of state resources has fallen short,” the letter said. “Black, brown, and new immigrant communities are not benefiting from the COVID-19 resources the state and federal governments have provided thus far. Major gaps exist in the dissemination of information these communities need to understand the grant process and their ability to navigate the pre-qualification requirements to meet deadlines.”

The letter requested additional funding from CARES act funds specifically for minority-owned businesses. In October, it was announced that the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery was making changes to ensure equal access for businesses. But to some businesses, the changes were too late.

“We did get a PPP loan, but it was very insignificant.” notes Gail Somers, owner of Yahso Jamaican Grill in Keene. “I’m grateful for what I got, but honestly, we need more. And I’m not sure what another round of stimulus will look like.”

Somers emigrated from Jamaica to the United States in the 1990s. She received a degree from Villanova University in Pennsylvania and eventually moved up to Keene with her family. She and her family only just recently opened Yahso in May 2019.

“We did very well, and I’d say it’s a success in the making.” Somers says. “The business concept caught on really good. Part of it is there’s nothing like this in the area. I’m pretty fortunate to be part of a community that’s looking for a variety in food and cuisine.”

Apart from being a unique minority-owned business in majority white and rural Keene, Yahso also saw increased business from the Black Lives Matter movement. As Black Lives Matter reignited after the killing of George Floyd, Black-owned businesses saw a surge of support.

“Keene itself has been the host for a few different rallies and demonstrations, and we would typically see a big crowd come in afterwards.” says Somers. “That’s like an immediately good thing out of that situation, just feeling that support from the people that would come out to let their voices be heard.”

But because of COVID-19, business has still not been up, or ideal as Somers wants it to be. Like many other restaurants in the country, Yahso partnered with third-party delivery services such as DoorDash and Uber Eats to keep the restaurant afloat.

Yahso is a part of DoorDash’s Kitchen Without Borders, an initiative to support and promote immigrant-owned restaurants.

“Our business is the only Black-owned business in the area in Kitchens Without Borders, which is supporting the immigrant community in America.” says Somers. “Those things build awareness about who we are. And again, we get support from anyone who is interested in showing their support there.”

But not all Black-owned businesses saw a noticeable increase in support during the racial justice movements. In Peterborough, Sága, a health and wellness collective, has not had much business specifically related to Black Lives Matter.

“No, uh-uh. I wish.” says Ivor Edmonds, co-owner of Sága, laughing when asked about any additional support over the summer. “If people wanted to give us support that would actually be a very intelligent thing to do.”

Edmonds co-owns Sága with his wife, Brianna Graves. Sága offers classes such as Pilates, meditation, and yoga. All of these classes were in-person but COVID-19 quickly changed that. Graves and Edmonds had to adapt like every other business.

“I would say about, when looking at the numbers, it was probably about 35% of my services that I could no longer offer,” says Edmonds. “But the other 65%, I was able to put online and then expand.”

Edmonds has had experience with business in other states as well and describes common challenges that impact Black-owned businesses more compared to white-owned businesses.

“I know from Massachusetts that Black business owners have challenges with red tape.” notes Edmonds. “Anytime there’s red tape when it comes to financing, regulation, licensure or insurance. Anytime there’s red tape, you’re generally going to see Black people take twice as long. Maybe I have to speak to two landlords, two banks when a white business owner only has to speak to one.”

It is well known that red tape regulations disproportionately affect small, local businesses, but these regulations disproportionately hurt small, local businesses that are Black-owned as well. This disproportionate effect was easily seen in the inaccessibility of PPP loans to minority-owned businesses.

The Union Leader reported that in New Hampshire, less than 200 of the 23,000 PPP loans granted to small businesses were given to minority-owned companies, less than 1% of all the loans.

But despite the difficulties and challenges of running a minority-owned business in such a rural area, these business owners find importance in running their own business and supporting other few minority-owned businesses in rural New Hampshire.

“I look at the fact that Keene is home to a pretty sizable university, Keene State College, and there are a lot of Black and Brown kids that come to school here.” Somers notes. “As a Black or Brown kid, student, or young adult, you really want to be somewhere where you don’t stick out like a sore thumb, right?”

“And me being an immigrant, once an international student, I know how much it matters to get to a community and still feel some sense of belonging and familiarity.” Somers continues. “I think that’s why businesses like mine in these rural areas add to the fabric of the community.”

For Ivor Edmonds, supporting local minority-owned businesses is also about social responsibility.

“When it comes to any issue of injustice and inequality, especially in an environment where most of the people here are White, it’s how you treat the least of you that determines how everyone is treated.” says Edmonds.

Edmonds also says that people that are not already supporting minority-owned businesses are just missing out on good business in general.

“The first thing that comes to mind is just quality that people are missing.” Edmonds says. “If you haven’t become a patron of the Black businesses in New Hampshire, then there is just quality you are missing. Some of the best stuff, some of the best food, some of the best experiences.” 

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